How Mind Wandering Boosts Your Creativity

Photo by sean Kong on Unsplash

Do your best ideas ever come to you in the shower? Or when you’re taking a walk in the park? People frequently claim that a creative insight or inspirational thought came to them while they were away from their work desks, often during a moment of relaxation or even during a dream. Mary Shelley’s idea for Frankenstein purportedly came to her in a dream at Lord Byron’s villa, and biographers for the Beatles explain that Paul McCartney envisioned the melody for Yesterday while he slept at his girlfriend’s home.

These claims often sound like apocryphal stories, because it’s reasonable to expect that your strongest outputs should come from hard work rather than blind luck. However, as we learn more about the science of the brain and mind, the creative value of taking breaks becomes clearer.

When we relax, our mind is likely to wander. At our desk, we typically stare at a computer screen and focus carefully on one particular problem. In fact, we often focus on one limited aspect of the problem. A narrow focus of attention filters out distractions, and keeps us on a single consistent train of thought. But when we have a problem that requires us to bring together several different perspectives, or requires us to visualize a problem from an unusual point of view, tunnel vision is not necessarily a good thing. Instead, that’s when a wandering mind may be our star player.

In contrast to our desk mindset, outdoor walks and breaks from our typical work environment allow our mind to drift around a little, often toward things that seem irrelevant or random. On occasion, that drifting mind reaches a clue that brings our mind flying back to the original work problem. If we’re lucky, we might even chance upon an exciting epiphany that makes us think “aha!”. In those situations, our success comes from allowing our relaxed mind to bounce around outside of the mental boundaries we impose while staring at our computer.

In a recent study published in Psychological Science, researchers recruited a group of physicists and professional writers to complete diary entries every night for two weeks. In these entries, they had to describe their most important creative idea for the day, and then answer questions about the context surrounding how each idea emerged.

The context-related questions indicated whether creative ideas occurred spontaneously during unrelated thinking, or whether they resulted from a period of continuous hard work focused on the idea. For example, people identified whether each idea came to mind while they were “absorbed in the general idea or problem” or while they were “thinking about something unrelated to the general idea or problem”. They also indicated whether they had been “working steadily on the problem/project”, or had found themselves “at an impasse” when their idea came to mind. Finally, they expressed whether each idea felt like an “aha!” moment, and rated how important and creative they believed each idea to be.

The researchers found that 20% of the creative ideas occurred during mind wandering, or more precisely, spontaneous task-independent thinking. A deeper analysis suggested that mind wandering was particularly helpful when people struggled to overcome an impasse in their thinking. At an impasse, 26% of people’s creative insights came during mind wandering. But when making steady progress with no impasse, mind wandering was responsible for only 14% of their best ideas.

What about the quality of the ideas? The diary entries suggested that ideas were equally creative and important during mind wandering and task-related thinking. It wasn’t that mind wandering simply made people trigger-happy thinkers who accepted bad intuitions as good ideas. Even at a follow-up survey, 6 months after the original diary entries, people still rated their mind-wandering ideas to be just as important as their on-task ideas.

In a final test, the researchers specifically investigated the “aha!” ideas, which were rated as the most important and creative ideas overall. 25% of these moments of sudden inspiration and insight came during mind wandering, compared to only 16% of the ideas with no “aha!” feeling.

It’s worth noting that most ideas still came from attentive and dedicated work; after all, mind wandering is a disoriented, unfocused, and irregular activity that takes your mind to all kinds of strange places. But importantly, when comparing the origins of the most exciting ideas to the least exciting ideas, mind wandering favored the flashy end of the scale. When mind wandering works, it really works.

When we feel mentally stuck or drained at our desk, at a seeming impasse, we may benefit from looking for a change of scenery. Amazingly, in the study above, physicists and writers showed similar outcomes from mind wandering. Each day, mind wandering was more likely to save them by resolving their impasses rather than assisting with their steady progress. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you need an idea about the universe’s physical laws, or an idea about how your mystery novel should twist. In both cases, a wandering mind can help stimulate a revolutionary creative insight. It is a mindset that leads to more “aha!”, and less deadlock.

I’ve previously written about how specific processes in your brain may explain creativity advantages associated with relaxation and mind wandering. Low frequency brainwaves, such as alpha and theta waves, are characteristic of long-range interactions in the brain and top-down thinking. These waves commonly appear during periods of relaxation, and may hike up the chances of a creative insight during rest. When we are overthinking a problem and struggling to make progress, it could be useful to transition our brain from a narrow attentional state to a broad wandering state.

Whether you’re an entrepreneur, an artist, or any type of diligent thinker, you are likely to benefit from avoiding the exhaustion caused by over-stretching your concentration. Sometimes, hard work turns into wasted effort. Mind wandering provides a potentially rich source of imaginative ideas that you can turn to when your primary source of hard work just isn’t cutting it. By taking a break, and allowing yourself to hit your mental reset button, you give your brain its best chance to float toward the creative flash you’ve been hunting. It’s simple, really: just let your mind wander.